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Olcott Beach Carousel Park delights youngsters with joys of yesteryear

If you measured joy by the penny, you couldn't find a happier place than the Olcott Beach Carousel Park.

From the gently moving vintage rides for little ones to the beautifully restored 1928 Herschell-Spillman carousel enjoyed by everyone from babies to seniors, the compact park is a throwback to a simpler time.

In that simpler time, a dollar was a fortune. So at the Olcott Beach Carousel Park, each ticket costs a quarter and each ride costs one ticket.

"Our slogan is 'Building memories for a new generation,' " said Rosemary Sansone, the energetic founder and current executive director and manager of the park. And one of those memories is allowing a family to enjoy an afternoon of fun for $5 or less.

Admission is free to the compact, nicely landscaped 1-acre park at 5979 Main St. Anyone may walk in and take a seat in the shade to watch Rob and Carol Allen's 2 p.m. magic show in the Tom Kelley Rustic Theater. After a stop at the ticket booth, where $5 buys 20 rides, youngsters up to about age 8 may choose from five vintage kiddie rides.

Anyone older than 8 years old may try their hand at the Skee-Ball alleys. Any visitor may turn over floating ducks for prizes, or, best of all, ride the colorful Herschell-Spillman carousel that forms the centerpiece of the park.

Rosemary Sansone is the founder, executive director and manager of the Olcott Beach Carousel Park. (Harry Scull Jr./Buffalo News)

On a warm, sunny weekday, the park was busy with stroller-pushing parents, wide-eyed youngsters waving from the planes, cars, boats and rocket ships, smiling grandparents relaxing in shade while watching the magic show and an excited puppy pulling its owner toward the water bowl and box of biscuits set aside for canines.

The park has such an organic, authentic vintage feel that it's difficult to grasp that it's been assembled from scattered parts, or that it's celebrating just its 15th year.

The original Olcott Amusement Park was one of several summer attractions that drew throngs of people to the town in decades past. The park, at the same site as the current Olcott Beach Carousel Park, entertained families from around the 1940s until the mid-1980s, when it closed.

The rides were sold, down to the original ticket booth with its barred front. Only the dilapidated roundhouse that once held a glittering 1920s-era Herschell-Spillman carousel remained, its windows closed with plywood panels. Weeds grew up in the surrounding lot where families had once spent the day.

Around 1999, Sansone was a member of the Krull-Olcott Development Committee of the Niagara County Legislature, one of several panels asked to propose and implement improvements. One of the committee's suggested projects was refurbishing the old roundhouse. Sansone, who had lived in Medina and Lockport and had childhood memories of the Olcott Amusement Park, began to work on that project.

To restore the roundhouse as authentically as possible, the volunteers needed photos of the original Olcott Amusement Park. One ad placed in a vintage carousel trade magazine seeking photos resulted in a connection that would boost the park beyond anyone's wildest dreams.

Jack E. Campbell

Jack E. Campbell of Culver, Ind., an avid collector of carnival and circus memorabilia and equipment, spotted the ad. Campbell called Sansone to say that he had the kiddy car ride that had been operated at a nearby Olcott amusement park, the New Rialto.

"I said, 'We need a carousel first,' said Sansone. He replied, "Oh, I've got one of those too."

Campbell had purchased and meticulously restored a circa-1928 Herschell-Spillman carousel that was very similar to the original carousel from Olcott.

"The main difference is that the old carousel had three rows and this one has two," Sansone said.

Campbell, who owned a marina, enjoyed setting up the carnival rides in his boat storage warehouse during the summer and inviting neighborhood families in to enjoy them, said Sansone.

Grace Diina, 7, in front, and her sister Lila, 4, ride the 1940s-era Allan Herschell Sky Fighter ride. (Harry Scull Jr./Buffalo News)

Eventually, Sansone signed a contract promising to pay $56,000 for the carousel and $12,000 for each of the four other rides – the 1940s Allan Herschell Kiddie Auto/Fire Truck ride, a 1940s Allan Herschell Sky Fighter, a 1940s boat ride — whose mahogany boats Campbell had restored himself — and a 1950s Rocket Swing Ride.

"My husband is an attorney and I still can't believe he let me sign that," said Sansone.

Years later, when she confided in Campbell that she wasn't sure if she would be able to make the payments, he said cheerfully that he would have given her more time. Recalling the anxiety she felt as she worked to meet her deadlines, she laughed.

Sansone made her original pitch to restore the park, which is owned by the Town of Newfane and rented to the nonprofit Olcott Beach Carousel Park Inc., by citing the success of the Richland Carrousel Park in Mansfield, Ohio. Richland opened in 1991 with a new hand-carved carousel and old-fashioned ticket prices. It improved its neighborhood in addition to being a hit.

In Olcott, "People were hungry for this area to be revitalized," she said. "Now it's really transformed the neighborhood. The rotted-away cottages are gone, there is more green space, there's a gazebo that has Sunday concerts and new businesses have opened up."

"We started out with nothing and fundraising was quarter to quarter" – as in 25 cents to 25 cents. "Then we got smart," she said, seeking grants from the state and such groups as the National Carousel Association.

Still, raising money took a lot of ingenuity and sensitivity. The volunteers got the local business community's support by promising that no souvenirs or food would be sold on the grounds, sending park patrons to nearby businesses for lunch, ice cream or a T-shirt.

They auctioned off naming rights to the carousel horses and marked each one with a plaque. They got sponsorships and donations for plantings and pathways.

The work came naturally to Sansone, who retired in 2003 from the Lockport City School District after 30 years in education. "Teachers are great organizers," she said.

Campbell, who attended the grand opening of the new Olcott Beach Carousel Park on May 17, 2003, died five years later. His obituary mentions that his restored carousel and other rides are operating in Olcott. "He was quite a person," said Sansone.

Today, her role with the park is full-time – "Oh, yeah!" she said emphatically when asked – and she does everything from picking up litter to chatting with guests as she walks the grounds.

"People come here because this park is extremely clean, extremely safe – we are very safety-conscious– and the rides are only 25 cents," she said.

"The rides are similar to what was here, except for the rocket swing," she said. The kiddie car and boat rides were even placed in the same spots as their predecessors. A kiddie Ferris wheel bought for $4,000 from the old Whistle Pig in the Town of Niagara completes the ride offerings.

Every ride but the Ferris wheel is under cover, so the park operates rain or shine.

"I hear people telling their children and grandchildren, 'I rode this ride when I was your age!' " said Sansone.

A shake-covered building built by Dan Horanburg, a reproduction of Olcott's famous Boeckmann photography studio that once stood in Krull Park, houses a small arcade. Inside are a vintage fortune teller machine, a cackling Happy Feet foot massager and a souvenir penny pincher, as well as a few more modern games.

Murals of old Olcott scenes by Ralph Wolfe and Robert Guido decorate the walls of the pavilion that houses the rides. "We're a historical park, too, and try to use touches of Olcott history," said Sansone.

Not one but two Wurlitzer band organs produce the lilting, cheerful music of the carousel.

A beautifully painted band organ in the center of the carousel is used when the Allen magic show is on stage. At other times, the rare 1931 145-A Wurlitzer band organ outside the roundhouse fills the grounds with its merry, tinkling music. The music is made by 105 organ pipes, supplemented by drums, cymbals and bells and is played by punched-paper rolls, like those used in player pianos.

Work at the park is done by a dedicated corps of volunteers and 18 high-school students, who are hired for the summer with a grant from the Griggs-Lewis Foundation.

Ed Sandusky, a volunteer at the Olcott Beach Carousel Park, started working at the old Olcott Amusement Park in 1951. Now both he and his 14-year-old grandson, Aaron, volunteer there. (Harry Scull Jr./Buffalo News)

Ed Sandusky, who operates the carousel, has filled both roles. He was an employee at the old Olcott Amusement Park from 1951 to 1954. "It turned out to be the best thing going," said Sandusky.

A photo showing Sandusky, Jim Updegrove and Al Wilson on the grounds was reproduced 50 years later when the trio turned out to operate the carousel at the park's grand opening. "This will be his 65th year here," Sansone said of Sandusky.

"I'm still going around in circles, too," quipped Sandusky, who directs carousel riders to horses to balance the ride.

These days, Sandusky, of Lockport, drives to and from his volunteer work with his 14-year-old grandson, Aaron Sandusky. "He sort of got drafted," the elder Sandusky said. Aaron said that even after he gets old enough to work at the park, "I might just stay as a volunteer."

Don Dixon of Wrights Corners, another longtime volunteer, watches over the Skee-Ball alleys, where players pay 25 cents a game to roll smooth wooden balls up a slanting alley and into holes that earn different scores. A recent repair to a coin mechanism on one of the games uncovered the date of 1948, he said.

Debbie Hahn, of Lockport, a teacher's aide during the school year, has volunteered at the park for 12 years. Hahn's husband, Tom, is the "chief ride mechanic," said Sansone.

Debbie Hahn is among the workers who watches the rides to make sure that the youngsters, some of them just out of the toddler stage, are enjoying themselves.

"They might be tired, this might not be their day, or this might not be their year," she said. "Next year they might come back and really enjoy it, but not yet. We watch them to make sure they are all having a great time."

Deanna Knapp sells tickets from the ticket booth in the Olcott Beach Carousel Park.
The price of tickets – 25 cents each – surprises many first-time visitors. (Harry Scull Jr./Buffalo News)

Behind the old-fashioned bars of the tiny ticket booth, a modern reproduction set next to the original, Linda Sawyer is in the swing of her first year of volunteer work.

"I knew a couple of people who volunteer here and it seemed like a fun thing to do," she said.

And she was right. She enjoys talking to the visitors, "especially the new ones who have never been here before," as she measures out a long roll of ride tickets for a $5 bill. She has sold tickets to people from all over, she said, who are "thrilled" to see how far their money goes.

"Occasionally people are here from Canada and even with the Canadian exchange rate, it's cheap here," Sawyer said.

The kiddie rides are limited to those 4 feet 4 inches and under, but the carousel is open to all. And not all the carousel tickets are used by youngsters or parents. Sawyer has sold tickets to gray-haired couples who want to take a spin on the carousel. One woman who said she was 102 years old recently bought a ticket for her yearly carousel ride. Wedding parties have been photographed on the colorful prancing horses or in the chariot of the carousel, too.

The visitors book has been signed by people from all over the world, as close as Newfane and Wilson, with signatures from New Jersey, Georgia, Iowa and Arizona sprinkled in. And then there is one from Helsinki, Finland: "Olcott surely has changed since my last visit in 1987. (And I love this place!)"


The Olcott Beach Carousel Park will be the center of a Band Organ Rally throughout Olcott from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. July 29 and 30. "A spectacular variety of European fairground organs," beautifully decorated and ornate, will fill the air with music from various sites, including Krull Park. Admission is free.

The main fundraiser for the Olcott Beach Carousel Park, the JazzSea Benefit, will be held from 7 p.m. to 10 p.m. on Aug. 8 at the park. Tickets, which are $25 each, are on sale in the ticket booth at the park. Bands, wine and catered food are included. The crowd, dressed in summer finery, is invited to try their hand at the Skee-Ball alleys.

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